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Chicago Street Retreat
by Sensei June Tanoue

When we go…to bear witness to life on the streets, weʻre offering ourselves.  Not blankets, not food, not clothes, just ourselves.”

~Bernie Glassman, Bearing Witness

A street retreat is a plunge into the unknown, and yes that means being far away from my comfort zone.  A couple of weeks ago, five women joined Genro Gauntt from the Hudson River Peacemaker Center, to live for 3 days on the streets of Chicago to bear witness to homelessness.  It was late April and the weather forecast for Chicago was rain and cold. 

I really didnʻt want to do it initially.  Iʻve grown accustomed to my comfortable bed and safe lifestyle.  But Iʻve found that itʻs important for me to stretch myself regularly and to actively practice our three Zen Peacemaker Tenets.  The first is Not Knowing which means letting go of fixed ideas about the world and myself.  This isnʻt an easy thing to do in normal life, but doing a street retreat forces you to look at the world from a different perspective.  

The second tenet is to bear witness to what arises within myself and around me.  I bore witness to my great fear of the cold and just not knowing what to expect.  The third tenet is loving action that naturally arises if you do the first two tenets well.

Preparation for the retreat included no showering for 5 - 10 days prior and begging people to pay your registration fee of $500.  (You couldnʻt use your own money). 1/3 of the fee went to the Hudson River Peacemakers, and the other 2/3 went to the organizations who helped us on the retreat. 

So with some trepidation, I signed up.  Raising the registration fee was the easy part. People were so generous when they heard what I was doing!  Then, I knew I had to do it.  I remember getting up the morning of the retreat, noticing gray skies, and just feeling like sobbing. I noted fear in my body and mind.  But I didnʻt feed it with any stories about how scary this retreat might be.

I began to get my meagre things together.  Warm blanket and jacket, check.  Rain poncho, check.  Empty water bottle I saved from the trash, check.  And kleenex - that wasnʻt on the list but my hay fever was kicking up with the arrival of spring - and I thought a handful of kleenex would surely be alright to pack.  I noted that the heaviness of fright had left.

I watched the weather during the week of the retreat religiously hoping that the forecast for rain would change. Genro was very helpful. He has studied Native American ways with his Lakota friends at the Pine Ridge Reservation.  He reminded me of the Hawaiian way whereby you can pule (pray and request) from the heart for different weather conditions.  So I meditated and prayed, and lo and behold, we were blessed with no rain!  But still the weather was nippy, dropping to the low 40ʻs the first night and the high 30ʻs the next night.

Hereʻs a description of the first day of the retreat.  

We met in Clarendon Park in mid-afternoon.  There were a couple of city workers on riding mowers making a racket as they cut the grass literally a foot from our meeting place throwing some grass on us and making lots of noise.  I think the mowers matched the kind of noise that was growing inside of my head as we started the retreat.

We moved to a quieter place and sat in a small, tight circle.  Genro laid down a weathered, navy blue neckerchief on the grass.  He placed a small candle in a red plastic holder, and his jizo bracelet on it.  We meditated for about 20 minutes.  Then he lit the candle and someone made a dedication.  Then he started to tell us the safety precautions.  

We needed to always stay together or at least be in pairs.  That went for bathrooms as well.  When he mentioned bathrooms, I noticed a little anxiety poke up in the pit of my stomach.  When I voiced this anxiety, Genro reassured us that there were bathrooms everywhere.  We found this to be true: MacDonaldʻs, Home Depot, Starbucks, churches and the soup kitchens where we went for meals.

So we started off walking in the direction of the first soup kitchen that served dinner.  This was in Uptown.  When we got to the Cornerstone Community Outreach Center, we found out that they were only open to members who were staying in their family shelter.  They wouldnʻt serve us.  So we had a slight dilemma: how to get to the Franciscan Outreach Center in Wicker Park in time for dinner.  We would never make it walking.  Fortunately our leader had an emergency fund for times like this.  Plus a few of us had L cards that we had used to get to Clarendon Park. So we took the L down to Wicker Park and walked about a mile to the Franciscan soup kitchen.

There were mostly men at the Franciscan Outreach soup kitchen and a couple of women.  White male volunteers from a downtown bank were serving the meal.  We stood in line, got a number, and walked into a room that was off of the kitchen.  There were about 9 square tables that seated four people each.  We sat down with our number on the table, and the volunteers brought us a plastic plate with compartments that had food in them.  

That first meal consisted of a few slices of either vegetarian breakfast or maybe pork patties that were overcooked.  It was tasty but the consistency of cardboard.  (Not that Iʻve eaten cardboard before).  There were a couple of wieners that looked lonely, and some kind of whole wheat rotini noodle dish. A third of the noodles were dried up and hard to eat.  There was also half of a slightly stale sweet roll and maybe a cookie.

I was trying to fit in; which makes me laugh right now because Iʻm sure we stuck out a bit.  But I didnʻt feel judged by anyone in any way.  There was a very friendly woman volunteer who kept talking in a kind of nervous but friendly way to my friend Susan Myoyu Anderson who sat with me.  She gave us business cards for the Franciscan Outreach Center which included information about the shelters they had for men and women.  She encouraged us to come back and eat again for lunch and dinner.  I was grateful for her friendliness but didnʻt look forward to coming back.  The food wasnʻt perfect, but we were thankful.

The woman volunteer told Myoyu and me when the men had left the table - in a quiet voice - that she had been raped when she was younger and was not comfortable with men in close proximity.  She was fine helping out at the soup kitchen, but she didnʻt like to sit next to men.  

Talking to the homeless men was a little daunting for me.  But when I stopped feeling self-conscious, I found the men I talked with to be civil and friendly.  Some were certainly lost in some kind of addiction, but I didnʻt feel endangered in the soup kitchen.  Plus we got some good information - that there was nowhere to get breakfast in the morning.  But we could get lunch at a soup kitchen the next day at St. Stanislaus KostkaChurch.  We had missed that soup kitchen on the Greater Chicago Food Depositoryʻs list researched prior to the retreat.

After dinner, it was time to look for a place to sleep.  We didnʻt stay at shelters because we didnʻt want to take up beds there.  Genro directed us to look for cardboard.  He said cardboard was great for sleeping on the ground.  “Cardboard” I thought to myself.  “Oh geez, here we go.” 

And as we walked through Wicker Park looking for potential places to sleep, we found lots of cardboard in the form of empty Amazon boxes.  We borrowed some of the bigger ones and tore up a side seam so it would fit our bodies.  We folded and carried them with us.  We looked at potential sleeping places that didnʻt appeal to me - a littered embankment of the Chicago River, inside a gate that stored big garbage containers and the back of a punk rock nightclub.  We also looked at a park that was surrounded by homes and a school.

Finally after about an hour or so of walking around, lugging our backpacks and, now large sheets of cardboard, we came upon the Chicago River off North Avenue.  We walked on the side of the river down a street where Kayak Chicago was situated.  There wasnʻt a fence, and it was a little secluded.  It was dusk and night would soon be upon us.  As we were checking it out, one of their employees drove up on his motorbike and asked what we were up to.  

I started talking with him because just the week before my husband and I had been down to the river at The Kitchen for dinner, and he had commented that it would be fun to kayak on the river.  I had doubts about the cleanliness of the river.  So I asked this man, “How clean is the river?”  He said a few years ago the river had been determined to be toxic but soon the status would be changed from polluted to swimmable.  

The geese and cormorants seemed to be having a wonderful time.  Then another member said that we were on a street retreat looking for a safe place to bed down for the night and asked if we could use their spot near the entrance to the river?  He looked a bit perplexed and said, “Ahhh, well… I guess so…” scratching his head.  He said that sometimes people came by looking for scrap metal, but that was about it.

So we found a place that was near their locked metal gate that opened to the river.  Their kayaks were on the other locked side of the gate.  We carefully placed our cardboard over the gravel - four of us side by side.  We got our blankets and small sleeping bags out and laid down carefully on the cardboard.  Genro positioned himself at the base of the metal gate right in the path of the wind coming off the river.  Another woman parked herself near Genro.

The sun was beginning to set and the sky was a beautiful deep blue.  Big, white, puffy clouds that were slowly moving across began to turn amazing colors of peach.  It was an amazingly beautiful sunset. There was a little wind blowing off the river, but this street retreat seemed very doable.  But when the sun went down, it got much colder.  Two women on either side of me had brought small blankets - not enough for the cold.  

So I suggested sharing my big blanket, and we all huddled together to try and ward off the cold.  I hadnʻt slept on the ground in a long time, and soon the gravel was poking through my cardboard giving me an acupressure treatment I wasnʻt happy about.  My body ached every time I moved trying to get comfortable.  I really wished I had two pieces instead of one to lie on.  

In the middle of the night, I heard footsteps on the other side of the gate we were sleeping in front of.  Annie heard them too, and we listened intently hoping the person would go away.  

About 15 minutes later, a young man who worked at Kayak Chicago came around in the back to where we were all sleeping and said something like “Holy Shit!”  

Annie immediately sat up and blurted out, “ Weʻre on a spiritual homeless street retreat, and we talked to someone who worked here earlier who said we could stay here!”  The young man was shocked but quickly came to his senses and said with some concern, “Oh…okay…..umm, do you need more blankets?  Iʻve got some in my car.”  

We said, “Sure that would be great.”  He went back to his car returning in about another 15 minutes with a heavy blanket and a blow up mattress for us to use.  That was an unexpected gift.

I had maybe a few hours of sleep that night.  The morning dawned cold but clear and beautiful!  There were flocks of seagulls and cormorants flying all around.  There was a Home Depot a block away where we could use the bathroom and warm up a bit by sitting in their lawn chairs. 

So that was our first day of the retreat!  A friend asked me what part of the experience most impressed me.  After a little thought, I decided it was the resiliency of the human spirit - mine and othersʻ. Thatʻs what I found with this offering of ourselves.  Thereʻs something very good that happens when you face your fears and enter the realm of the unknown.  I found kindness, courage and lightness of being.  

Robert Althouse

Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago, 38 Lake Street, Oak Park, IL, 60302